Advice How to TMO

How to Ride in Winter

Riding outside of 'riding season' isn't awful but does require a little prep

Less than a month from now, Daytona Bike Week will be in full swing, an event that for many Americans signals the start of the riding season and, by extension, the end of winter. So perhaps some could argue I’ve written this article too late. But I don’t live in Florida. Or anywhere near it.

Stay Warm On The Road
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Here in Brexitania it will still be a fair few months before we can feel our toes again; last week I rode home from work in snow. So, I thought I’d put together a few winter riding tips that I’ve picked up along the way, gathered from various sources (other riders, magazines, etc) and my own experiences of riding pretty much every day. Take it all with a grain of salt, of course. Last week provided an example of my knowledge being incomplete, with one piece of advice I would have given – cover your bike in GT-85 – having been proven inaccurate.

Step 1: The Rider

Moto-journalist Peter Egan once said that no rider should feel compelled to get on a bike if the temperature in Farenheit is below his/her age in years. In the United Kingdom that would be challenging. Scottish people, for example, would have to stop riding in their mid-60s, and from their early 50s they’d only get a chance to ride once or twice a year. But I still support the sentiment: don’t ride unless you want to.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot ever since my wife decided riding isn’t for her: you do not have to ride a motorcycle. Really. And, by extension, you do not have to ride in conditions that will make you miserable. There’s no joy in being joyless. (Or, at least, you do not have to do so intentionally – even if you choose to ride on only the sunniest of warmest days there’s still a possibility you’ll get surprised by a change in the weather.)

Drew Faulkner is a little more hardcore in winter than I am

So, the first tip for winter riding is to remember that you don’t have to do it at all. I choose to ride all year because even in the worst conditions I’m usually able to find some element of joy or solace. For example, the other day, as snow was beginning to fall on my evening ride home, my right hand got so cold that I lost feeling in some of my fingers. Not the sort of experience that would sell most people on motorcycling. But as I toughed it out I found myself listening to the droning bassy thrum of my Bonneville T120’s engine and in some quiet way it warmed my soul. My body was cold, but I was content. Your personal experiences may vary, however, and you should not feel bad or guilty if you would very much prefer to be getting around in the warm and dry of a car or train or bus.

Step 2: The Clothes

My everyday gear consists of an Aerostich R3 Roadcrafter, Dainese Tempest boots and Dainese Universe GoreTex gloves. Under the R3 I wear a Gerbing Heated Jacket Liner, which is awesome, but which I worry about in heavy rain because the R3 hasn’t been 100-percent flawless. If I know I’ll be riding in a storm, I wear a Knox Cold Killers Wind Jacket over a sweater and ride to work telling myself that I used to live in Minnesota, damn it, and I’m tough enough to take this (I’m not). The boots, by the way, have become a disappointment, now failing in anything other than a light rain. (My Forma Adventure boots are too clunky for use on the Bonneville, meanwhile, so for the time being I’m suffering wet feet and saving up to buy GoreTex boots.)

So, as I say, my system is an imperfect work in progress. Broadly speaking, though, I’d suggest choosing gear that is waterproof. It’s generally the case that colder weather is wetter weather. The drawback is you’ll have to tolerate looking less stylish. If you have a kick-ass sheepskin-lined leather jacket from Aero Leathers, for example, it may look fantastic but its use is extremely limited.

2020 BMW S 1000 XR
It doesn’t look terribly cool, but riding with a waterproof over-jacket – as I’m doing here – definitely helps retain warmth

One clothing option that I’ve found particularly effective is good ol’ totally unsexy waterproof over-clothing – you know, the stuff you put on if you’re going out to ride in a monsoon. It looks terrible but in addition to keeping out rain it blocks wind and helps trap body heat. One of those hideously ugly one-piece suits works really well, though it can be awkward to get in and out of, somewhat uncomfortable/restrictive, and wiring in heated gear is nigh impossible.

A lot of people opt for textile jackets and pants, but remember that with the majority of those items the waterproof element is on the inside. The textile layer can get soaked and although you won’t be wet it will have a cooling effect. This is one of my complaints about the Roadcrafter. But, when you factor in convenience and comfort, textile gear still ends up being the preferred choice. My advice on such gear is to get stuff with as few zips as possible; they let in water and air. Oh, sure, the manufacturer will tell you otherwise but the manufacturer has not ridden where you are riding. Also, get a neck buff or three. And if you’re able to do so, cover your nose and mouth so you’re breathing in warmer air.

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Whatever you wear, remember that you’re not going sledding. The temptation is to bundle up like Randy in A Christmas Story, but you need to be able to move around on a bike. Unfortunately, the best advice I can give is to wear stuff that’s as thin as you can tolerate – especially when it comes to gloves. Make sure that what you’re wearing is not too tight. If you restrict blood flow, you’ll end up being even colder.

Lastly, you’ll want a Pinlock visor insert, of course, to help prevent your visor from fogging up. Keep in mind that these are not infallible, though. In that case remember that airflow is your friend. If you have a screen on your bike you may want to lower it, even though that will put more of your body in cold air. Better to be chilly and see than warm and blind. Additionally, make sure your visor is clean and scratch-free, because odds are you’ll be riding in the dark at some point (Something that Pinlock insert makers advise against, by the way, but needs must).

Step 3: The Bike

It’s late to say this, but you should start the winter season with your bike in the best shape it can be. Fresh tires, chain in good condition, etc. Replacing stuff mid-season is a pain in the caboose if you do work yourself. If you get all your work done at the dealership, though, I suppose the dead of winter is, in fact, the best time to show up. Things get pretty quiet during the darker months, so you won’t have any trouble scheduling in a time that suits you exactly. The dealership will be delighted to see you. Here in Wales, dropping by a shop in winter is a great way to score endless cups of free tea and hours of conversation.

Some people subscribe to the idea of getting a winter hack – an old bike that you won’t care about damaging on salt-gritted roads – but to each their own on that one, I suppose. If I had the money to own two bikes one of them would be a car.

I do sometimes wish I still had my old Honda CBF600 to ride as a winter hack

I have but one bike, which I do my best to protect against winter conditions with an aggressive regimen of cleaning and application of various sprays. For years I have coated everything but the brakes in GT-85 and it’s appeared to have kept corrosion at bay, but the research of my friend John Milbank suggests I may have been lucky. Going forward I’ll be using GT-85 to force water out, but ACF-50 to actually protect the bike. I’ll let you know how it goes; you’ll obviously need to experiment to find what works best for you.

Whatever system you choose, it’s a good idea to keep your bike as clean as you can. Shiny bits can help draw drivers’ attention, and headlights/tail lights/indicators that are muck-free are obviously more effective.

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In terms of the actual type of bike that is best for use in winter, the simple answer is: whatever you feel most comfortable on. Roads get sketchy, so you want a machine that gives you the greatest sense of control. For me, that is a bike with a low center of gravity. I also personally prefer a bike with minimal fairing, lest I end up dropping the thing.

Step 4: The Techniques

Riding In Snow (Or Not)
It doesn’t snow often in Cardiff, where I live, and if it does it doesn’t usually stick to the ground. Personally, if I were to step out one morning and find even half a centimeter of snow on the road I would turn right back around and go make myself a cup of hot chocolate. Later, I’d fill my Instagram feed with pictures of me making a snowman. I wouldn’t go into the office. I work in a marketing department; nothing I do is so important that I am willing to risk damaging myself and my bike to get there.
Obviously if I still lived in Minnesota such an attitude would not sit well with my employer. The “I’m not coming to work because there’s snow on the ground” excuse doesn’t fly in a place that can have snow cover from November to April. If you live in such a part of the world, winter riding may not be for you. Do what the Indian Motorcycle guys do, and take your snowmobile to work (That really is what some of them do).

Slow And Steady
For those of us that live in places that are cold and wet but only sometimes icy, the primary philosophy to exercise when riding in winter is “abundance of caution.” Smoothen and straighten your riding as much as you can, accelerating and stopping steadily. Keep the bike as upright as possible to ensure maximum grip. Do this within reason, obviously. Riding 25 mph in a 50 zone may put you at risk of suffering the erratic behavior of impatient drivers. If conditions are so bad that you can’t keep pace with the flow of traffic you may want to reassess whether you should be riding at all.

When riding in wet/cold conditions keep your acceleration and braking steady

Work That Body
You will have to turn the bike eventually. In this case, don’t be afraid to shift your body around (in a smooth and steady manner), hanging off slightly to help the bike stay upright. You want to keep your weight centered, but it helps to put your head and shoulders into turns. Doing this can feel really silly, like when moto bloggers go into racing stance for photos (I was going 20 mph when this picture was taken), but it helps.

Serenity Now
Within this context, do your best to keep your body and mind relaxed. I’ve had any number of little slips over the years – the rear kicking just a little, the front going just a tad – and have found that if I don’t overcorrect there’s a high probability the situation will sort itself out. It’s when I’ve tensed up and been inflexible that I’ve gotten into hairy situations. To that end, it’s good to practice a certain amount of mindfulness. Acknowledge things, but try not to become fixated on them. If your rear kicks a little in a roundabout, just say to yourself, “Well, that was a thing that happened,” and try not to freak out about it.

Don’t Be Afraid to Stop
That last bit of advice about not stressing is easier said than done, I know. So here it’s good to remember some advice I gave when I talked about riding in the rain: tea and cake are your friends. For the sake of physical and mental health you should be prepared to stop considerably more often than you might on a lovely, sunny day. Being cold negatively affects your ability to problem solve and make decisions. Take the time to warm up and reset your thinking. Don’t worry, you’ll get there. You just may need several cups of tea along the way.

Plotting my route from the warmth of the 1902 Cafe at Triumph’s headquarters

Step 5: Your Input

A lot of the time when I write a “How To” sort of article like this, the rest of you will come up with advice I hadn’t thought of, or that is, in fact, better than anything I’ve come up with. Please feel free to do the same thing here.